Overcome These Five Obstacles to Your Mindfulness Practice

Meditation isn't always as easy as it may appear. Here's how to cope the next time your mind wanders.

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Many media outlets have been talking for a number of years now about how ubiquitous mindfulness is, the impact it’s having in a variety of sectors and all the wonderful science that continues to be published. But I noticed that many people in the media don’t talk much about the actual formal practice of mindfulness meditation and that’s probably because it can be a hard habit to establish. One thing I’ve learned is if you want to establish a practice you have to look directly at what’s getting in the way, and allow those obstacles to be your greatest teachers.

Here are five common obstacles to meditation, and how to overcome them:

1. Doubt

The uncertainty about whether something will “work” or not often plagues many people in the beginning of their practice. The thoughts is, “this can work for others, but it won’t work for me.” Sometimes doubt is healthy, teaching us to look closely at things before we buy it. But the unhealthy doubt just takes us away from experience before it teaches us anything.

Solution: We have to remember that thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not facts (even the ones that say they are). When we notice this doubt slipping in, just take note of it, perhaps even notice the fear that is often underneath it, and then gently return back to the practice.

2. Restlessness

Let’s face it, it’s hard to sit still for a period of time when the mind can be so busy. We’re trained from a young age to do, do and do some more. The mind may rebel a bit when learning how “to be.” You might catch it running through a million to-do lists and try and count the minutes until the end of the practice. This is all completely natural.

Solution: It’s important to recognize that restlessness and boredom are just sensations like any other. If you look deeply at restlessness or boredom, underneath it is often some form of anxiety or fear. But you don’t need to investigate it to reduce its impact, just naming it as you recognize it can really reduce its impact. You might even try adopting a beginner’s mind and getting curious about the sensation of restlessness. Or, if you really find it too difficult to sit still, why not try a mindful movement practice?

3. Irritation

Irritation comes up for many reasons. Maybe we don’t feel like we’re having a good meditation experience or there’s an annoying noise in the room or it’s a secondary emotion that comes after feeling restless. In other words, we’re irritated that we’re so restless in the practice.

Solution: While our urge is to resist the irritation, we have to remember the old adage “what we resist persists.” The work here is to include it as part of the mindful experience. Our work is to recognize the irritation, allow it to be there and we can either investigate it deeper or watch as it naturally comes and goes.

4. Sleepiness

Being the sleep deprived nation that we are, it’s easy to feel a bit sleepy when we come down from our busy minds. Our body does what it naturally wants to do, go to rest. We also feel sleepy sometimes when an experience is overwhelming, so it’s good to be curious whether the tiredness is telling you that you need more rest or that there’s a feeling that needs to be expressed.

Solution: If from time to time you fall asleep when meditating, consider it a good nap that you needed. However, if this is happening often you might try sitting in a more upright posture, standing up, having your eyes slightly open or maybe splashing some water on your face before starting. Still not working out for you? Try a bedtime meditation, which aims to put you to sleep.

5. Wanting

You’ll notice when you practice that your mind may fall into a state of wanting to be somewhere else than where you are. Or maybe it’s even more innocent, of just craving a bite to eat and so the mind starts drifting onto different food topics. Or before you even get to practice your mind wants conditions to be different than they are so you don’t even get to practice. This state of mind can either stop us from practicing or ignite restlessness, irritation and others.

Solution: If you notice this state of mind before you practice, you might consider what you can practice instead of what you can’t practice. If the mind is busy wanting to be somewhere else during the practice, see if you can be easy on yourself, simply continuing to notice the thoughts straying and gently bringing your attention back. If it’s continues to be a strong pull, maybe intentionally shift your practice to being aware of thoughts.

Ultimately, having a regular mindfulness meditation seems so simple, but practice isn’t always easy. We have our brains to contend with who throw up all these obstacles.

Even if you just made it your intention to be on the lookout for these obstacles and apply the antidotes as best you can, that would be an extremely beneficial practice.

Be forgiving of yourself as you go and remember you can always begin again.

Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy.